The WRX is the hot-rod version of Subaru’s compact Impreza. Patterned after rally cars — a form of racing that is wildly popular in Europe but widely unknown in the U.S. — the WRX first came to the States in 2002. With its turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive, it offered a unique driving experience somewhere between a hot hatchback and a full-on sports car.
|1. A new, smaller, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.
2. Subaru claims a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds with the new 6-speed manual transmission.
3. Also offered with an automatic, Subaru has fitted the 2015 WRX with a CVT.
4. Fuel economy is 21/28 MPG (city/hwy) for the manual and 19/25 for the automatic.
The WRX has had its good years and its bad years, but it’s always been fast, grippy and relatively inexpensive, traits that have earned it a large and loyal fan base.
We liked the previous-generation WRX, and we’re smitten with the new one. Though Subaru has several significant changes, the basic character of the car remains intact: Armed with a broad, flat torque curve and a seemingly limitless supply of grip, the new WRX attacks curvy roads with the tenacity that only a turbocharged engine and four powered wheels can provide. The old WRX may have needed a little help from the aftermarket to bring out its true potential, but the new car feels complete, its surfaces smoothly sanded and its edges finely honed.
Familiar Look, But Only One Body Style
So what, exactly, has Subaru changed? Darn near everything. As with the old WRX, the new one is based on the Impreza, though most of the sheetmetal has been altered: Doors, fenders, hood, and front and rear fascias are unique to the WRX.
Though the new car looks a bit tame compared to the old one, the big, functional hood scoop gives it the unmistakable look of a hot-rod Subaru. Unfortunately, the rear view is less captivating: The trunk spoiler has been downsized in the name of aerodynamics, and from the back the new WRX is as anonymous as an ordinary Impreza.
There’s also one detail die-hard Subaru fans might not like: The new WRX is only offered as a sedan. Subaru says that by sticking to a single body style, they were able to spend more money on stiffening the structure. That’s all well and good, but those who chose the WRX as a practical sportster will be left hanging, as the sedan’s 12 cubic foot trunk is no match for the old hatchback’s spacious cargo bay.
Aside from the lack of cargo space, the new WRX’s interior is greatly improved. Along with a bigger back seat, the WRX gets a much-needed materials upgrade: The cheap plastic trim bits that marred the old WRX are gone, and nearly everything in the new car’s cabin has an upscale feel. The one notable exception is the headliner, which appears to be made of the same cardboard used to package eggs.
We liked the front seats, which are supportive, and heavily bolstered. Grippy cloth comes standard and leather is optional. Subaru has finally added a power driver’s seat to the WRX’s options list, along with another first, a high-end Harmon-Kardon stereo.
Smaller Engine, More Power
Not that we ever turned the stereo on, because we were too busy listening to the WRX’s soundtrack, an invigorating mix of gear whine, turbo whistle and exhaust blat. Though the 2015 WRX’s 2.0-liter engine is 500 ccs smaller than the one in the old WRX, its output of 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque bests the outgoing motor by 3 hp and 14 lb-ft. Subaru claims a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds with a manual transmission, fast enough to quicken the pulse but slow enough to leave room for the hotter STI version that will inevitably follow.
EPA fuel economy estimates are 21 MPG city and 28 MPG highway for the manual (which, finally, gains a sixth speed), and 19/25 for the automatic. Yep, you read that right: For the first time in several years, the WRX is being offered with an automatic transmission — actually a CVT, or continuously variable transmission.
CVT WRX as Bad as You’d Expect
Since we’re gearheads at heart, it’ll come as no surprise that we recommend the manual, but we have good reason: The CVT is a poor choice for a performance car, though not for lack of effort on Subaru’s part. The WRX’s CVT has three modes: Intelligent (Subaru-speak for economy), Sport, and Sport# (that’s Sport Sharp, not Sport Pound… or Hashtag).
In the first two, the CVT lets the engine revs rise and fall as needed until the accelerator pedal passes a certain threshold, at which time it emulates a traditional six-speed transmission. Sport# mode provides eight “speeds” and adds a launch mode for faster starts. All three modes provide manual shifting with paddles on the steering wheel.
This all sounds promising on paper, but it works poorly in the real world. For starters, eight speeds is way too many, as it requires a lot of banging on the downshift paddle to get any meaningful revs. And since the transmission is quick to upshift, there’s lots of paddle-banging to be done. Besides, a key advantage of the engine’s broad power band is that you don’t have to change gears — in the manual car, we did our best curvy-road work by simply leaving the transmission in third.
And the so-called launch mode is an epic fail: Since the WRX uses a torque converter rather than a clutch, the launch is comically undramatic. (We would have guessed we were doing it wrong, were it not for a Subaru staffer on board who verified that the watered-down take-off was, indeed, the CVT’s interpretation of a launch.)
Driving the CVT-equipped WRX gave us a new appreciation for the twin-clutch automatic in the Volkswagen GTI and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart… not to mention the WRX’s own six-speed manual.
Amazing Chassis, Amazing Grip, Amazing Fun
The good news is that no transmission can dampen the fun that comes courtesy of the WRX’s chassis. The standard Dunlop summer tires generate 0.93g of skidpad grip, and the all-wheel-drive system lets you get the most out of every last hundredth of a g.
Like the previous-generation WRX, the new one will understeer when pushed really hard, though the WRX’s electronic stability control system will brake the inside front wheel (even with the power applied) to keep the front end from running wide.
As with other Subarus, automatic WRXs get a slightly more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system with a planetary center differential and a default power split of 45% front and 55% rear. Manual cars get a mechanical viscous coupling with a 50/50 base split, and both systems can send up to 100% of the power to either axle. If there’s a significant difference in handling, we didn’t feel it, but maybe that’s because we were too busy arguing with the CVT and/or enjoying the manual.
For 2015 the WRX has switched to electric power steering, and we were pleased with the precision and response, though mid-corner feedback leaves a bit to be desired. The brakes are bigger than those of the old WRX, and we liked the solid, stiff pedal, which recreates the feel of a proper sports car.
The WRX’s stiffer structure and stiffer suspension tuning reduce body roll to nearly nil, though the ride is very firm — not as stiff as Volkswagen’s Golf R, but on bumpy roads it teeters on the edge of discomfort. And unlike the Golf R, the WRX lacks adjustable shocks to take the edge off. Still, the car it notably more focused for on-track, rather than off-road performance.
It’s our job to break down the details, but what we like best is how the whole experience comes together on a curvy road. The WRX is fast, eager and powerful, and driving it springs to mind a half-dozen car-review clichés, including “well composed”, “confidence inspiring,” and “easy to drive fast.” Not to mention “Honestly, officer, I didn’t realize I was going that fast.”
Subaru had not announced pricing at the time of our press preview, but they hinted heavily that it would only be a couple-few hundred bucks more than the 2014 WRX’s starting price of $26,790 (including destination fee). With an automatic transmission and nice-to-haves like leather, navigation, a sunroof and that Harmon-Kardon stereo, we expect the WRX will top out in the low-to-mid 30s.
If our guesstimates are correct, the 2015 Subaru WRX will undercut all-wheel-drive rivals like the Volkswagen Golf R and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution by a significant margin, and open itself up to cross-shopping against front-drivers like the VW GTI and Ford Focus ST. Not that it’s an open-and-shut case for the WRX: The GTI may not be as quick, but its twin-clutch automatic transmission works way better than the WRX’s CVT, and while the Focus ST’s rear wheels may not be powered, the ability to coax it into oversteer makes it a more interesting challenge for experienced drivers.
That said, Subaru has done a terrific job with the new WRX, encompassing everything that has made this car a fan favorite while making a host of useful improvements. The lack of a hatchback version is a significant loss, but we think the 2015 Subaru WRX will please fans and attract new buyers to the franchise, just as Subaru intended.